The growth of self-im­por­tance

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

Don­ald Trump gave Miss U.S.A. a gen­er­ous Christ­mas present. He told Tara she could keep her tiara. “I’ve al­ways been a be­liever in sec­ond chances,” said the man who made his name fir­ing luck­less losers who flubbed a first and only chance. Tara’s first chances ap­par­ently in­cluded un­der­age drink­ing and pub­lic smooching with strangers in bars. Her sec­ond chance re­quires re­hab and es­tab­lish­ing her­self as a “great ex­am­ple for trou­bled peo­ple [who] have prob­lems with al­co­hol, that have prob­lems for life.”

That’s a tall or­der for a girl who just turned 21. Sec­ond chances are start­ing at younger and younger ages. You don’t have to be a beauty queen to be be­set by temp­ta­tions be­fore you’re an adult, or spon­sored by a fatu­ous bil­lion­aire who ex­pects you to be a “role model,” to see such su­per­fi­cial­ity as only skin deep.

In our highly hyped me­dia cul­ture we fo­cus on the fall of oth­ers be­cause it makes us feel bet­ter about our­selves. We’re not about to learn any­thing from that. There’s a lot of free ad­vice in the me­dia and avail­able on the In­ter­net, but the 21st cen­tury is char­ac­ter­ized more by ad­mir­ing self than learn­ing by ex­am­ple. What we take from the me­dia and off the Web is more about self-en­hance­ment than self-per­cep­tion.

Time mag­a­zine was on to some­thing by nam­ing “You” as its “Per­son of the Year,” com­plete with a mir­ror on the cover. “See thy­self” has re­placed “Know thy­self” as the adage to live by. But Time’s em­pha­sis is all wrong. Spread­ing the news with raw, unedited data and mak­ing im­age pro­jec­tions on YouTube.com and MyS­pace.com cre­ate only a pub­lic per­sona. It may or may not have any­thing to do with the who of you.

We’ve moved from the Age of Nar­cis­sism to the Age of Self-Im­por­tance. When Nar­cis­sus saw his face re­flected in a pool of wa­ter he leaned over to kiss the re­flec­tion, and drowned. When we look at the mir­ror on the cover of Time we cel­e­brate the idea be­hind the re­flected im­age. Time warns against ro­man­ti­ciz­ing the “You” of “You,” but it ro­man­ti­cizes by sug­gest­ing that the col­lec­tive per­son of the year pro­vides “an op­por­tu­nity to build a new kind of in­ter­na­tional un­der­stand­ing, not politi­cian to politi­cian, great man to great man, but cit­i­zen to cit­i­zen, per­son to per­son.”

Say what? Many of the peo­ple Time fea­tures have the self-in­sight of a snail. They may have done some­thing with a po­lit­i­cal im­pact, such as the deed of the young man who brought down Mark Fo­ley, the Florida con­gress­man, by post­ing on a Web site the geeky amorous e-mails re­ceived from the con­gress­man 11 years ear­lier. Now the older but not much wiser man is bit­ter that he got fired for tak­ing ad­van­tage of his com­pany com­puter to blog about it. He’s miffed that no good job of­fers came of his “15 min­utes of fame.” Imag­ine.

One col­lege se­nior who boasts of ac­quir­ing 700 “friends” with her profile posted on Face­book.com can’t imag­ine how any­thing got done in col­lege be­fore Face­book. “Older peo­ple had hand­writ­ten let­ters or called each other or what­ever,” she says. “I mean, re­ally, we have a much more con­ve­nient way of do­ing things.” (Es­pe­cially since we got rid of “what­ever.”)

There’s no Lud­dite here. I’m writ­ing this on my Dell desk­top com­puter with an Athlon dual core 2X pro­ces­sor (what­ever that is) af­ter check­ing out my fa­vorite Web sites. The In­ter­net has its spe­cial uses and we can’t any longer ex­pect let­ters writ­ten with a fine and care­ful hand. But ap­pre­ci­at­ing tech­nol­ogy for its virtues does not re­quire be­ing obliv­i­ous to its vices. “You,” so cel­e­brated by Time, el­e­vates more than a few medi­ocre minds and un­tal­ented men and women. “You” of­ten fails to sep­a­rate the chaff on the chip from the sub­stan­tive wheat of facts that de­mand the scru­tiny of a dis­crim­i­nat­ing ed­i­tor.

The pop­u­lar me­dia sets trends, but it’s not a thought­ful tastemaker or a care­ful fact checker. Brian Wil­liams, an­chor­man of the NBC Nightly News, asks an im­por­tant ques­tion: “The whole no­tion of ‘me­dia’ is now much more demo­cratic, but what will be the ef­fect on democ­racy?”

Walt Whit­man was the great poet of our democ­racy. When he cel­e­brated him­self he cel­e­brated ev­ery­one. He was hope­ful about the ways the cul­ture of democ­racy shaped the lives of chil­dren. “There was a child went forth ev­ery day,/ And the first ob­ject he look’d upon, that ob­ject he be­came,/And that ob­ject be­came part of him for the day or a cer­tain part of the day,/ Or for many years or stretch­ing cy­cles of years.”

That should give any­one pause, with or with­out tiara or even a mir­ror. Merry Christ­mas, and God bless us ev­ery­one.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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